When we said that we would holiday with friends in the Drôme region of France, I was excited, but must have had selective amnesia about the mountainous and inclined aspect of the region. The Drôme Valley is bordered by the soaring Alps and the Cevennes and nestled between them is a town called Crest.
In the balmy afternoon sun, we ascend the steep crumbling stairway, heading for the most striking man-made landmark for miles around. The heavy lunch of beef and red wine, although glorious while being enjoyed, is wholly regretted as I trudge up the 52 m Tour de Crest, The Keep. Friends swear that the view from the top is worth the effort – I doubt this with each knee numbing step.
Crest is a traditional market town with an imposing skyward bound structure. The Tour de Crest was once attached to the Crest Castle, but it is now the only remainder of this once massive fortification. The Tour de Crest, known locally as The Keep was used to house prisoners. What makes this goal so interesting is not the history or the architecture, but the walls of the cells.
Graffiti litters the walls. On first sight the writings reminded me of wooden school desks, defaced or enhanced with years of pens and pencils of uninterested students. But these walls were more personal and far more disturbing. The cells of this Keep are long narrow rooms, with a heavy wooden door and an unglazed slit dissecting the 4 m walls at the other end. These cells were said to hold 50 prisoners, but that is a conservative estimate and in reality probably held many more. Two cells are larger and from these cells the curved ceiling still hang what look to be meat hooks. But this Keep was never used as a food larder. The prisoners, with bound hands were strung up on these grotesque hooks. These hooks run in perfect line from the watch hatch in the door to the glassless window; such convenience granted the guards was beyond curtesy.
Who was kept in this prison? This was not always recorded by the officials. However, they found a way to scupper this wilful ignorance by the ruling state. The prisoners only wanted to record their presence here. Wanted only to ensure their spirit on this earth was written in stone, that their possible deaths were noted. Not much to ask for from another human?
The walls of these cells are not protected, tourists and visitors to the Keep can brush their fingers over the curls and up-slants of the T’s, Y’s and J’s of numerous names.
From as far back as the 16th century there is very beautiful cursive graffiti etched into the lime washed walls. Prisoners would gouge their names into the walls with dates and place of capture or arrest and occupation e.g. Louis was a musician from Lyons and held in Crest in July 1739. Others would draw and one stunning example can be seen in the upper walkway, of a Musketeer like man elaborately drawn and dating from the 18th century. D’Artagnan makes an appearance in the largest cell. Were they a taut to the guards?
Some inscriptions contain information, while others write thoughts, songs, prayers and much more. The languages used are numerous and in some cases unrecognisable to me. The age of inscriptions may be gauged by the overlay of other, newer names. On these soft, warm to the touch, off white walls entire lives are seen, some with precise details, but most with only a name and date. The recording of their life and presence in this tower are indelible for us all to read.
Standing on this sunny afternoon, surrounded by the ghostly writings from centuries ago I wonder what conversations may have been had? If any prisoners found solace within their conversations or if they remained silent. What tortures were imparted? What escape attempts were dreamt of, and finally if any ever managed to walk from the gates, free once again?
Unusually these walls have never been placed behind glass. Everything is within reach and touch. By the tracing of these names do these ghosts talk to the modern. Are their worries and dreams so radically different from one another? There is nothing to stop the ghosts from imbuing us with ideas of Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité.
One inscription conveys it more than any history book: in Cell 12 located near the bottom of a main wall is written, anonymously, in very clear block writing is the inscription “L’HORREUR” (The Horror). No other writers clutter up this statement. Everyone respected the space around it. The lime wash walls are pristine in their absence of scrawls For this weary tourist this is the final word needed from this eerie place, no matter how dizzying the views are from the top.